Interviews: New Adventures In Hi-Fi

By Will Hodgkinson

When Peter Buck called the band for which he plays guitar “the acceptable edge of the unacceptable,” he coined the perfect way of describing the world’s only alternative stadium rock group. Growing out of the tiny, insular music scene of Athens, Georgia at the end of the 70s, R.E.M. marked the point at which punk ended and what Americans call “college rock” began, and 25 years later, the band remains essentially the same, even if their bank balances do not.

“Ultimately the music will tell us if we’re doing it right or not,” says Mike Mills, the band’s bassist, on the eve of the release of R.E.M.’s melancholic and emotive new album, Around the Sun. “Circumstances and people change – especially since Peter moved to Seattle, given that we once all lived in the same house – but as long as the results are OK, then the band is still making a contribution.”

Mike Mills and Michael Stipe still live in Athens, which has always had a strong music scene, but the bands there developed their own style. “Anywhere outside of Athens, southern boogie rock was hugely popular,” says Mills, who stills seems like he is fired with the enthusiasm of just having discovered alternative rock despite being well into his 40s. “Athens was an island of young and hip people, and the music was made by art students who weren’t musicians. Their whole tenet was to reject everything and create a sound pastiche. Pylon and the B-52s came out of that and they worked well, and you also got plenty of other bands that were… somewhat less accessible.”

“Athens was really off the map, which meant that you had no choice but to do your own thing, a bit like how PJ Harvey comes from Dorset and sounds like nobody else,” adds Michael Stipe, who talks quietly in a nervous staccato, and has a habit of flicking his scarf around his neck every minute or so. “But also because the B-52s and Pylon were touring and bringing things back, Athens discovered this really cool band called Joy Division and this really cool band called U2 before anyone in New York did. If that sounds like bragging I’m sorry, but it really was the case.”

At the centre of the Athens music scene was Peter Buck, who worked in a record shop and introduced Stipe and Mills to such eternally hip underground bands as Suicide, Kraftwerk and Silver Apples. “I used to go in there and ask for the New York Dolls and the Velvet Underground,” says Stipe. “So he would then recommend things that I would like. He’s still doing it now.”

While Stipe and Mills have developed other interests in their adult life beyond the band and music, Buck hasn’t. He recently filled up the iPods of everyone who worked on R.E.M.’s new album with songs that he thought they might like – and considering iPods can take up to 10,000 songs, this was a Herculean feat of downloading. “He’s become obsessed with it,” says Stipe. “He has done this for everyone who worked on our new record, including the engineers, who he had only known for a couple of weeks. What’s interesting is to discover what he thinks we should be listening to. Mike got entire albums by Miles Davis, for example, while I only got the greatest hits.”

“It must have taken him weeks, but he really isn’t interested in anything apart from his family and music,” adds Mills. “He reads books, and plays music, and hangs out with his family. That’s it. So he loves the iPod because it gives him a chance to go through thousands of records that he hasn’t played for the last 20 years.”

The band that really inspired R.E.M. in the early days was the angular British new wave group the Gang of Four. “We opened for the Gang of Four and worked with them, and I lifted plenty of things wholesale from that band,” admits Stipe. “From the way they looked on stage to the way the singer used phrasing and musical instruments at the same time.” What made them so good? “You can’t say why anyone is so good. You can put in psychology until you are blue in the face but it won’t help you. I always really fucking hate it when people tell me why Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote great songs together because they just did. You should accept it as a given and walk away.”

“They were one of the best live bands ever; focused and raw,” says Mills, sensing my unease at having possibly incurred Stipe’s wrath. “Growing up in Macon, Georgia, where not a lot of hip stuff filtered through, it was all very educational for me. I had never heard of the Velvet Underground until I moved to Athens, for example, and all of a sudden there was this world that I never knew existed before. The Gang of Four must have hit me at just the right moment.” Macon, Georgia was, however, the place where Little Richard was born, and James Brown came from nearby Augusta. So Mills has been getting back to his roots and listening to those R&B legends, alongside Al Green and Marvin Gaye, whose music he heard as a child. “I listen out for new bands, but I keep seeing the second generation of things. I mean, the White Stripes are great, but we knew the Flat Duo Jets, who the White Stripes got all their ideas from.”

Stipe, meanwhile, still likes all those awkward, angry new wave bands he discovered in his youth, in particular the electronic duo Suicide, who emerged from New York at the time of punk to be met with almost universal hostility. “Mike’s the beauty guy and I’m the ugly guy,” he says. “I still really like Suicide. They were so ahead of the curve and therefore really unpopular, as well they should be.”

Originally published on 10 September 2004 by The Guardian

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